This Inspector-Rex obsessed canine is Hamish, who belongs to Sue, who recently got into an argument with a zoologist about whether or not her dog is really watching TV.
The zoologist argued that it’s not possible for dogs to see TV the way we do. Probably, he suggested, Hamish’s good sense of hearing is what’s working, and he is simply reacting to the sounds of animals he can hear on the TV. But is he?
Sue swears black and blue that Hamish does watch the screen – and in particular, enjoys animal programs. For one, he tries to interact with the animals on screeen, even with the sound off. And, when the program Inspector Rex is on, he will intently watch the main character, a German shepherd. If the dog leaves the screen then Hamish will get up and look behind the TV set to see where he’s gone.
So what’s going on here? Well, I scrounged around online and found that Sue’s anecdotes correspond well with other stories told by dog owners about their pets watching TV. There are lots of hilarious stories out there about of pets watching and reacting to animal shows. But, it’s also true that not all dogs seem to watch TV or react to it in the same way.
Can dogs watch tv?
Well, yes. Back in 2003 some Hungarian scientists proved that dogs can watch TV, by testing whether dogs respond to videotaped images of their owners. They discovered that not only do dogs recognise their owners on screen, they also respond to non-verbal commands given on video. Dogs who couldn’t smell their owners – and smell is a pretty major sense for dogs interpreting the world – still obeyed the commands issued by video.
Then, more recently, some Australian researchers decided to check up on the old idea of all dogs having the same eye size and structure. They found out that different sized dogs do have different sized eyeballs. And, more excitingly, they also found that dogs have two completely different ways of seeing the world.
It turns out that some dogs have a visual streak – a high density line of visual cells that runs across the whole retina. This gives them a wide field of view and good peripheral vision. Other dogs just have a big cluster of visual cells right in the middle of their field of vision, called an ‘area centralis’. They can’t see much peripherally, but what they do see is in much higher definition.
This could help explain why some dogs chase after things, while others don’t. For dogs with a visual streak, a moving object will stay in their field of vision for a long time, enabling them to track it. Dogs with long noses tend to have this sort of vision, which could explain why they’re so good at hunting and catching – think hounds and beagles, or wolves.
For dogs with an area centralis, a moving object flashes quickly across their field of vision and is then gone. Short-nosed dogs are more likely to have this sort of vision, and it probably explains why they are less reactive to objects moving at speed – after a certain point, they just can’t see them. In Hamish’s case it could also explain why he’s so good at watching telly – having high def sight must make TV viewing a breeze!
Check out the original stories and, if you’re tired of Inspector Rex re-runs, maybe these will keep you amused:
Dogs explain the atom (video)
Science dog blog (tragically, it only has one post. About Tetris.)